Arab involvement in Crimean War ‘erased from history’

The Ottoman Empire summoned Egyptian and Tunisian contingents against Russia

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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As tensions mount amid Moscow’s apparent military occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, many are unaware that Arab forces fought there 160 years ago.

Arab involvement was “erased from history,” said Egyptian historian Mahmoud Sabit.

A key reason could be that unlike often-exhaustive Western army accounts, Ottoman military records are extremely hard to find, said military historian Andrew McGregor.

“Many Ottoman officers were in fact illiterate,” he wrote. “while many of those who could record their thoughts might have thought twice about detailing the corruption and intense personal rivalry that plagued the 19th century officer corps.”

In the early 1850s, tensions between European powers, the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia were simmering.

Russia was locked in a long-running border dispute with Turkey, particularly in Crimea, which had been captured from the Ottomans in the 1700s.


Russia also sought to exercise protection over the Orthodox people of the Muslim Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I.

The conflict was sparked when the Ottomans negotiated a treaty that made France responsible for Christian sites and people within their empire, a role previously reserved for Russia.

The sultan needed help to defeat his longstanding arch-foe, and called on the army in its province Egypt to assist.

Egypt, which had previously rebelled from Ottoman rule under viceroy Muhammad Ali, had a superior military capability to the 550-year-old Ottoman Empire.

Ali’s grandson, the ruling Abbas Pasha, believed that sending troops to Crimea for the Ottoman cause could help curry favor with the sultan for a time when it might be needed.

“In a sense, this was one way of Egypt’s ruler... to appease Istanbul and say: ‘I’m the loyal, reliable viceroy sending you assistance in times of need’,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University of Cairo.

Taking no chances, the sultan also amassed a Tunisian contingent of 10,000 men.

Troops - presumed to be of Egyptian origin - pictured in the Crimea. (Photo courtesy of the Roger Fenton collection)
Troops - presumed to be of Egyptian origin - pictured in the Crimea. (Photo courtesy of the Roger Fenton collection)

Egypt amassed 40,000 soldiers specifically to fight in Crimea under the designation of the Ottoman Empire, said Sabit, a descendant of Selim Pasha, a general who led the main Egyptian military contingent in the war.

In 1853, with war brewing, the sultan sought the help of Britain and France, making up a powerful allied force against the vast, feared Russian army.

The first military action the Egyptian contingent experienced was the siege of Silistria in mid-1854.

Supply and command

The Egyptians went on to another military victory at Eupatoria, an important part of the allied supply chain, said Sabit.
In early 1855, Russia began an assault of 19,000 men and 108 guns in an attempt to take back Eupatoria. The attack failed, although 400 Egyptian soldiers, along with Selim Pasha, were killed.

The conflict, which lasted almost two and a half years, saw total losses over half a million soldiers on all sides.

The Egyptians “fought better and were more disciplined compared to the regular Ottoman army,” said Sabit, quoting the account of a French logistics commander who was at the battle of Eupatoria.

For the remainder of the war, Egyptian replacements continued to arrive in Crimea, and were eventually repatriated in 1856, when the war finally ended with Russia’s defeat.

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